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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Young Briton Calm as Drug Trial Starts

The trial of 18-year-old Briton Karen Henderson, arrested in Sheremetyevo 2 airport in January with 4.5 kilos of cocaine in her suitcase, started Tuesday in a dingy, lethargic courtroom in Moscow with an impassioned plea from Henderson's mother.

As Henderson, looking calm and composed after nine months on remand in Moscow's notoriously hellish Butyrskaya prison, gave evidence, one of the two magistrates appeared to fall asleep, and the public prosecutor left the courtroom for long breaks.

Henderson's Dutch-born mother, Patricia, was the only defense witness, begging the court to allow her daughter home.

"Karen grew up a very faithful and honest person, with a great sense of responsibility and justice," said Mrs. Henderson, who struggled to maintain her composure as she delivered her statement. "She's never, ever in her life used drugs. ... She comes from a family that has never been involved in anything illegal. Please, please let her come home with us."

Henderson and a Dutch friend, Suzanne Vorstenbosch, 23, were on their way from Miami to Warsaw via Panama, Havana, Shannon and Stockholm when their luggage was searched by Russian customs, allegedly revealing $900,000 worth of pure cocaine hidden baggage. She faces a sentence of up to 15 years if convicted.

"I couldn't believe my eyes when they opened the lining of the suitcase and showed me a big amount of white powder," Henderson said. "I was just in shock."

Henderson claimed that she bought the cocaine-filled suitcase from the nephew of a "kindly" toilet attendant at Havana airport after her own case fell apart in the departure lounge. She added that the case had been opened and damaged by the time she was asked to identify it by Sheremetyevo customs officials.

The defendant repeatedly complained about the poor standard of translation by the court-appointed interpreter, who mistranslated several key points of evidence. Judge Sergei Lebedev's question to Henderson's mother about her opinion of drug "pushers" and "smugglers," for instance, was translated as a question about her opinion of drug "addicts."

"I feel sorry for them," she replied, to the judge's dismay.

The prosecution called two witnesses, customs officers Dmitry Tyagunov and Sergei Yershov, who described how they uncovered the drugs. Yershov said under cross-examination that he could not remember some details of the case because it was a "busy time."

He testified that he had interviewed Henderson in English after her arrest, but he said under cross-examination that his English was extremely poor.

The magistrate who slept though much of the trial -- and who did not give his name -- was not impressed. After the session, he said he considered Henderson "definitely guilty."

"The only question is what the sentence will be," he said. "We have to decide if the sentence will be a suspended one or not."

In Russian judicial procedure, the verdict and sentence are decided by the presiding judge in conjunction with two professional but unqualified lay magistrates. Russian criminal courts have a conviction rate of 99.5 percent.

Henderson's Glasgow-born father, Hugh, sister Dawn and mother were visibly shocked by the proceedings.

According to her counsel, Alexander Gofstein, Henderson had to use kickboxing skills to fight off fellow inmates who tried to rip her clothes from her.

Since then, she has settled into the harsh Russian prison regime and is bearing up well, said trial defense lawyer Alla Zhivina, who tried unsuccessfully to have Henderson transferred to the comparatively softer Lefortovo prison.

Henderson is visited regularly by British consul Ian Kidd, who accompanied the family at the trial, but otherwise she has no contact with other foreigners.

If convicted, Henderson will be sent to a special foreigners' labor camp at Mordovia, 700 kilometers east of Moscow, said Vladimir Sergeyev, the investigator in charge of the case.

Even though Russia joined the Council of Europe in February, it has not signed the international convention on transfer of convicted prisoners, which means Henderson has almost no chance of serving her sentence in Britain.

A verdict is expected Wednesday.